RIP Marty Balin. We’ve Lost Another Great One.

Marty Balin, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane along with Paul Kantner (d. 2016), died earlier today at the age of 76: He was one of the greatest of all the 60s rock vocalists and songwriters, even if for much of the time he had to live in Grace Slick’s shadow. Lots of folks I know think some of the Airplane’s best songs were sung by Grace but were in fact sung by Marty, like “She has Funny Cars,” “Today,” “Comin’ Back to Me” and “Share a Little Joke.” Their voices complemented each other perfectly, and what a pair of voices they were.

I got home around midnight last night from the world famous Luna Star Cafe in North Miami where the house band, Wagner, Hand and Pflug, played a fine cover of “White Rabbit.” Synchronicity turned rancid when I went to check my email and saw the Yahoo note about Marty’s passing. What a lousy way to end an otherwise terrific night.

I didn’t see this in any of the canned obits swarming the net last night or today but a little known fact about Marty is he started his career in performance not as a singer but as a dancer in Johnny Mathis’s show chorus line. Mathis heard him sing and took him aside and said he was wasting his time dancing behind him and ought to go out on his own as a singer. Of such preposterous anecdotes is history composed.

Anyway, here’s the obligatory video of these two otherworldly vocalists capturing their uncanny onstage Vulcan voice melds. It’s a performance of “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” from After bathing at Baxter’s 1967 show from the Family Dog in San Francisco (I originally posted the performance of “High Flying Bird” from the Monterey Pop Festival but some asshole whining about ‘copyright infringement’ apparently had it taken down; on the bright side, you now get a Jack Casady vintage bass solo thrown in).

(If you got the “video unavailable” message, try again – I’ve changed the link.) It just kills me to watch this now. It was the soundtrack to my indefinitely protracted late adolescence and it really hurts this morning.

I must have seen the Airplane twenty times but the Thanksgiving 1969 late show was the killer show of them all, and probably the greatest rock show I ever attended. I mean, of all of them, including all the Dead, Janis Joplin and Cream shows. Period. The show opened with an early Hot Tuna configuration of Marty, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady that played a terrific set for an hour, followed by another great set, this time by The Youngbloods. They didn’t perform “Get Together” which disappointed us a bit, but we figured they must be sick of it by now. They had a surprise in store for us. Then the Airplane came out for an over three hour set including an acoustic “Embryonic Journey” by Jorma, a transcendent “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” with those astounding, soaring vocal trade-offs by Marty and Grace – this was the song in which they really perfected their vocal partnership – and they wrapped their set with an explosive rendition of “Young Girl Sunday Blues” concluding on an avalanche of those percussive Casady bass notes shoving Paul’s rhythm guitar and Jorma’s braincurdling leads together into a musical eruption.

We were totally drained, figuring there was nothing more anyone could ever do to top that. We were wrong. Jesse Colin Young and Banana came out and joined the Airplane (and the entire audience) to close the show with a joint “Get Together.” The place went nuts. I’ll never forget it. Maybe somewhere in our expanding universe there’s a planet with an atmosphere like the one in that theater that night, but I doubt if the gods are ever that kind. And anyway, how would anyone land on it in one piece?

It was already getting light outside when we reached the street where the late November cold was like a tonic slap in the face, made a left and went into Auster’s soda fountain on the corner of Second Avenue and Eighth Street for a chug of their ambrosial secret-formula egg cream, which cut through our weed-webbed throats like the very witch of fuck. An epic show, an epic night. Do not doubt it.

Angels sing thee to thy rest, Marty. You were a great one.

2 thoughts on “RIP Marty Balin. We’ve Lost Another Great One.

    1. You can’t define it. Each one of their albums is so different that even if you can detect a few threads of continuity, the sound continued to evolve record by record. After Crown of Creation Marty felt the juices had stopped flowing, plus with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin he thought he could use a vacation from a rapidly deteriorating scene, and left the band. Their next two albums, Bark and Long John Silver, were mere shadows of the sound that was.

      But: the Airplane got back together for a few months in 1989 for a reunion tour that produced a generally forgettable album, eponymously titled, but oddly enough it featured one of Marty’s most brilliant performances and is indicative of his versatility as a songwriter, arranger and singer. He sings Bertolt Brecht’s “Solidaritätslied” using the score by Hanns Eisler from the 1931 German film Kuhle Wampe. It’s a breathtaking number and worth the price of the record all by itself:

      Liked by 1 person

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